Pleiades are the seven sisters of the sky. Since they are together forever in the heavens, there is no place for sibling rivalry in their relationships. Let’s hope that they get along — eternity is a long time.
Their condition, though, is not a punishment, as much as a relief. Their placement results from an ardent and overzealous suitor who might be one of mythology’s major sexual harassers. You may remember Orion’s story in this column a few weeks ago. He was the heavenly harasser from whom the sisters escaped, thanks to the kindness of Zeus. Zeus turned the sisters into a flock of doves that could fly away from Orion’s aggressive advances.
Enough about the perpetrator, since this article is about the sisters.
The Pleiades is a star cluster. Though the sisters only number seven, the Pleiades cluster contains hundreds of stars. Though likely more than 425 light years away, it is still the nearest star cluster to earth. Look for it in the constellation Taurus and below and to the right of Orion’s belt. Most of the seven sister stars can be seen by the naked eye. The brightest sister (in luminosity, not smarts) is Alcyone, which is 1,000 times more luminous than the sun would appear at a similar distance.
Not only bright, Alcyone is considered the queen of the clan. Her name translates into “the one that wards off evil and storms.” Though there is only one queen, the other sisters have their own place not only in the sky, but also in legends and lore. Asterope is known as the stubborn one; her name means twinkling or lightening, perhaps alluding to the difficulty in seeing this star.
Next comes Ceaeno who is the “swarthy” sister — her childhood could not have been easy with that moniker. Her sons were he-goats and a wolf, which may not speak kindly of her husband’s looks either. Electra is another sister who was represented by amber and known to be shining and bright.
Maia is the nurturer; she is the elder, the grandmother, nurse and mother figure among the sisters. Merope is the more eloquent sister, a mortal that is associated with bees. Don’t forget the last, Taygete, who only was noted for her long neck. I guess by number seven, the parents were running out of names and unique qualities.
The seven sisters can be found rising in the sky at dawn in the spring and setting at dawn during the fall. Their prevalence in the heavens opened and closed the farming and seafaring season. The word Pleiades (sailing ones) comes from Pleione, their mother, whose name translates to the sailing queen, alluding to the seasons when it was safe to be on the water in ancient Greece. Another translation suggests that Pleiades comes from the root pleos, meaning full or cluster. To the ancient Greeks, it was probably along the lines of a pun: a cluster of sailing ones.
Perhaps their most enduring quality is their eternal beauty, which has inspired poets and writers through the ages. No one spoke to their splendor better than Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade, Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.” It’s an apt reminder that when the Pleiades are rising and setting at dawn and dusk, the time of fireflies cannot be far off — and with it the “mellow” days of summer.
If sisterhood is powerful, then the Pleiades are a force to be reckoned with.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.